Manager handoffs

Originally posted Sep 14, 2017

Y’all know how crucial I think one-on-one’s are for managers to get to know their direct reports: what they need from their manager, how they like feedback, what makes them grumpy, and so much more! But what happens when a person switches managers?

There are so many potential pitfalls when getting a new manager. Your new manager might not be familiar with all that you’ve done already, which could slow your career momentum. You can hope that your former manager and new manager did a handoff in which they shared lots of information like your goals, previous achievements, feedback you’ve received, and anything else that it’s helpful for a manager to know. But if they did have this handoff, it probably happened behind closed doors - you likely have no idea what was discussed, if everything was captured, and (the scariest bit) - whether or not the way your former manager represented things matches how you perceive the same things.

An Engineering Director at Etsy showed me a new way to do manager handoffs that combats these pitfalls: a 1:1:1 (“one to one to one”). A 1:1 is between you and your manager; a 1:1:1 includes both your former manager, AND your new manager, and is an opportunity to ensure your career momentum doesn’t experience that hiccup.

What’s the goal of a 1:1:1 manager handoff?

You, your previous manager, and your new manager meet in the same room or video call. Most of the talking happens between the managers, but there should be clear opportunities for you (the direct report) to jump in as you feel like it.

The goals are:

This is an opportunity to turn an otherwise lossy process into a much more thorough, supportive process for a direct report.

The agenda

Before this meeting happens, either manager should send out an invite stating expectations for the meeting, what each person should prepare for it, and what the goal is. Here’s an example:

Hey Other Manager and Direct Report! I’m booking an hour for us to do a ‘manager handoff’, with Direct Report sitting at the table, too!

Former Manager will cover:

  • Most recent review cycle feedback
  • More recent feedback, projects, and other info since the last review cycle
  • Direct Report’s goals, growth areas, things for New Manager to know

Direct Report, this will also be an opportunity for you to agree/disagree with how these things are described/characterized, and also an opportunity for you to have a complete picture of the info shared between Former Manager and New Manager. The goal is to make sure we’re transparent in the handoff of your career, how you want to grow, and the best ways New Manager can support you.

This stuff can naturally be very awkward for all involved :) This is okay (and normal!) - it’s awkwardness in service of clarity and fully supporting Direct Report’s career path, which can otherwise be muddled in manager changes.

I brought Etsy’s internal Charter of Mindful Communication over to Kickstarter Engineering when I joined. I usually reference that in the agenda, too, including reminders that each person in the meeting is responsible to do the following:

The 1:1:1

One of the managers should start by restating the goals (transparent handoff of career and manager info, an opportunity for the direct report to clarify and even disagree with what’s said, and reduced changes to the direct report’s career momentum).

After the restating of goals, the former manager should share their context directly to the new manager. Again, this is awkward, as the direct report is sitting right there, listening! But as much as possible, be transparent and honest (while mindful) as you share your context, history, feedback, goals, etc.

The new manager should feel free to ask questions as it happens naturally. Get clarification, aim for that shared understanding of history, goals, etc.

If the direct report is quiet, the new manager should be routinely asking them - how do you feel so far about what’s been said? Does this description match your experience? Are we missing something on that topic? Anything we should clarify? Anything you disagree with?

I’ve seen this be a super boring meeting where everything is clear and agreed with. I’ve seen this get sticky and uncomfortable when a direct report has an opposing viewpoint or different recollection. As necessary, acknowledge out loud that it’s okay if this is awkward. If it gets to a point where the dialog isn’t productive anymore, the new manager should talk with the direct report separately and privately about their experience. It’s totally natural that the former manager and direct report have different perceptions of the same events or feedback - we’re humans, which means this stuff is messy. Where it helps, restate those original meeting goals.

More often than not, even when things get uncomfortable, it’s still a really productive use of everyone’s time, and starts the new reporting relationship off on a much healthier foot. It’ll be quicker for the new manager and direct report to form a trusting relationship. And thanks to the shared understanding of events that the new manager had no prior firsthand experience with, hopefully nothing is changed about the timeline for the direct report’s future promotion process, trajectory towards goals, etc.

The follow-up

If the former manager was surprised that at the direct report’s perception of the same events, this is a great reminder to be continually checking in with one’s reports, gathering their feedback, and reducing surprise wherever possible.

If the direct report was surprised at how things were described by their former manager, this is also a nice reminder to routinely check in on how your manager is thinking and feeling about things, especially feedback they have for you. While ideally managers are giving routine feedback, your career path is truly your own responsibility; do the work to make sure you have a shared understanding with your manager about your path forward.

And lastly, where possible, make sure documentation of all this context (like previous reviews, lists of goals, etc.) are shared between folks and easily surfaced. I have an Evernote file with each person’s answers to those first 1:1 questions, which makes it super easy to share in the future with a new manager.

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